Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers (7-4) avoided being handed their third straight loss on Monday Night Football, leaving FedEx Field with a momentous road win over a crumbling Washington football team.
Better yet, the level to which they performed, offensively and defensively, said a lot about this team's prospects of picking up a few more W's with five games left in December.
As the playoff picture begins to take shape, the Niners had a timely showing, reminding the rest of the league they're here to compete.
Even without the team's star running back performing at a high level, Colin Kaepernick showed signs of life, while the 49ers defense eroded Washington from its offensive line on out. Overall, it was a commanding performance that even yielded positives from supporting players like Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Vance McDonald.
If you're in the NFC, watching San Francisco play total-team football in the winter months can be a scary thing. Here's what we learned from seeing how the Niners performed in Week 12.
Statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com Game Center and Pro Football Focus, unless specified otherwise.
According to ESPN Stats and Info, Washington gained 30 yards in the second half, which is the fewest by any team in the second half of a game this season. That pretty much sums up the night, too. Sure, that offense has its troubles, but the 49ers defense is something else altogether.
It’s three years running that this unit has been one of the best in all of football, and it really feasted on a vulnerable Washington team.
Frankly, quarterback Robert Griffin III trying to advance the ball versus that defense looked like a child trying to ride a pedal bike through a Category 4 hurricane. The conditions were far too much for him to handle, and most of the time, he couldn’t even stay upright.
That front seven absolutely throttled him for 60 minutes and did not let up for a second.
Even with Ray McDonald (ankle) and Tarell Brown (ribs) out, and no Ian Williams or Chris Culliver, like they anticipated at the beginning of the season, this unit has continued to thrive in Vic Fangio’s defensive scheme. There is a perfect mesh of star power, eager role players and a fitting system.
Even though the team has dropped four games this season, this defense has kept it in every single ballgame. Its ability to perform week in and week out enables the 49ers to beat any team in the league on any given Sunday. That'll get them to where they need to go.
It is all about whether or not the offense can show up on a regular basis.
Facing intense scrutiny this year, particularly when it comes to his ability as a passer, Colin Kaepernick put forth a terrific performance on Monday night. As a thrower, the proclaimed “read-option quarterback” posted a stat line of 15-of-24 for 235 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
He played confident, made tough-angle throws, pushed the ball into tight windows, and more importantly, didn’t turn it over.
This was also a game that dictated a pass-heavy approach wherein Kaepernick would have to step up as a pocket quarterback. Seeing as how he only averaged 2.2 yards per carry, it wasn’t exactly his running that got the job done. In fact, it was his proclivity as a deep-ball quarterback that made this victory possible.
A so-called “remedial passer,” per ESPN's Trent Dilfer, via Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Kap" had throws of 19, 20, 24, 30 and 40 yards, connecting with four non-running backs (three of which averaged 17.5 YPR or more). He spread the ball around and returned the explosive element to the passing game, which had been missing for weeks.
Since activating him a few weeks back, the 49ers have been looking for more ways to get their 2012 second-round pick involved.
Running back LaMichael James, the explosive runner from Oregon, seems to have finally found his niche on the team, which has been getting him on the active 46.
That function has been in the return game.
Back returning punts on Monday night, James finished with five attempts for a total of 72 yards, boasting a very strong 14.4 average. That’s better than Dallas Cowboys return specialist Dwayne Harris this season, whom many have proclaimed the best in 2013 (14.0 average).
It was impressive to say the least, more so because the 49ers have parted ways with Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams, largely due to their shortcomings there.
Just like that, the position went from abysmal to inspiring. He really gives the 49ers some pop there. By the end of the night, James had 125 return yards in total, telling senior writer Taylor Price of the team’s official website after the game, “I feel like I’m going to break one soon.”
He’s not kidding either. James, a mover and a shaker, was looking like he was on the verge of making a house call.
But for a team that values ball-control football and winning the battle of field position, James’ ability to take care of the football and help set up the offense is all Jim Harbaugh and Co. are asking right now.
His zeal in regard to going the extra mile and becoming a great returner is just a bonus and hopefully garners more consideration when it comes to James earning a larger offensive role. There is no doubt he is a dangerous player with the ball in space.
"We've got a return game," Harbaugh on LMJ— Kevin Lynch (@klynch49) November 26, 2013
Anytime the 49ers are able to win a game where Frank Gore only finishes with 14 total touches for 34 yards is big.
This is a run-first team trying to transition into a more dangerous passing team and have had their growing pains along the way. Looking at the games with Kaepernick as a starter, juxtaposed to Gore’s numbers and the game-ending result, this Monday night matchup will stand out as a milestone moment.
It was on the quarterback to win it with his arm, and he did.
People were clamoring for Gore to get involved, though, slowly but surely, the 49ers offense pulled away and began moving the ball at will. And it all happened by means of an aerial assault. San Francisco’s two leading rushers, Gore and Kap, only averaged 2.4 and 2.2 yards per carry, respectively.
So, in that regard, this game indicates a step forward.
Mario Manningham’s presence in the offense also demonstrated forward progress, wrapping up his third game with four catches for 45 yards. A 23-yard connection to tight end Vance McDonald also made the highlight reel, as the 49ers rookie picked up his sixth first down of the season on just eight grabs.
What may have gone unnoticed was the 49ers actually attempted throwing to the backs and called a screen to James on one occasion. While it went incomplete, it was the first real sign that this team is looking to evolve and tap all of its resources offensively.
After the game, coach Jim Harbaugh also said he wants to get the backs involved more in the passing game, and that should continue.
Overall, there are a lot of positives to take away from this one.
Against a top-10 pass-blocking tackle in Trent Williams, 49ers rush linebacker Aldon Smith decided to have his comeback game, abusing the former first-rounder for two sacks, four quarterback hits and countless hurries. It was a total clinic by the All-Pro, who officially cemented his return to the defense.
He picked up his first sack since Week 3, and the Niners secured their first win with him back in the lineup, after losing two straight.
Moreover, the role he plays is an important one, especially as it pertains to his pairing with right defensive tackle Justin Smith. By having him back, the 49ers weaponize their defensive front even further, which is, and always has been the strength of this top-ranked squad.
Rarely does a team get a late-season boost of this caliber.
And seeing as how the team learned to survive without him, prospering big-time from players like Ahmad Brooks and Corey Lemonier, the All-Pro returns as just the cherry on top. If the 49ers are able to develop their defensive looks, this could be a hot ticket down the stretch.
"Hard to throw a bootleg against a 3-4 defense when you have Aldon Smith beating down on ya" -Gruden— ESPN Monday Night (@ESPNMondayNight) November 26, 2013
Leading up to this game, there was quite a bit of smoke and mirrors as to whether or not 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree would make his 2013 debut after sustaining a full tear of his Achilles tendon in OTAs.
He was not activated by the deadline and wound up missing his 11th game of the year.
The team’s star player has barely been seen this year, as he’s been rehabbing, working out on the side field at practice and avoiding cameras on game day. All we know is what we can gather from the 49ers' transaction sheet and media sessions, which is that Crabtree is on the brink of a return.
Given his place within this offense, it projects to be a game-changing addition.
At the postgame presser, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh made it pretty much official, saying he anticipates Crabtree playing in a crucial matchup on Sunday versus the St. Louis Rams, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
If he and Kaepernick pick up where they left off, chalk this up as a monster gain for the 49ers. For the most part, that on-field hookup carried San Francisco to Super Bowl XLVII last season, looking as natural as any quarterback-wideout connection in the league.
Being Kap’s main guy, Michael Crabtree’s return—if totally healthy—puts the 49ers right back in talks as one of the hot teams to make a serious run toward the back-end of the regular season here and into January.
Harbaugh's been coy about Michael Crabtree's return for a month, but he said he "anticipates" the receiver will play Sunday vs. the Rams.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) November 26, 2013
The Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions—or at least some representative from the NFC East and North—will wind up competing in the postseason. The 49ers are not going to get any breaks with the NFL’s playoff format. They have to bite the bullet by being in the tougher division.
Their 7-4 record, while tied for fifth-best in the conference, is not a good-enough winning percentage to lock up a spot. They have to stay hungry with their division and the even, but middling, landscape in the NFC.
The Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals are all right on their tail, while Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers have bounced the Niners from the top wild-card slot. They’re as much on the verge of missing the playoffs as they are making the playoffs, so complacency is not an option.
They cannot afford it like Seattle or New Orleans, which sit comfortably on the throne the 49ers had the past two seasons.
So, while this win is great, San Francisco is very much still in must-win mode, especially with three more divisional games remaining, including one this Sunday on a short week versus a hot St. Louis Rams team. The journey to the playoffs starts now, and there is zero margin for error.
Who cares about the 49ers' Dec. 8 game against the Seahawks? The game that might have real playoff implications is Dec. 29 at AZ Cardinals.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) November 24, 2013
Wherever you looked, whether it was ESPN, NFL Network, Sports Illustrated or Bleacher Report, the predictions for Monday night's game were fairly unanimous.
Of course the 49ers, which are supposed to be perennial contenders, were heavily favored over a Washington football team that is in complete disarray. Honestly, even if they did manage to come up with a win over Harbaugh's squad, it would've said a whole lot more about San Francisco than it did Washington.
The Niners have Super Bowl aspirations and weren't about to lose to a 3-7 team, even if the match did take place on the opposite side of the country.
All told, this team won a game it was supposed to win.
While a win is a win, and you can't control which teams you play, the 49ers have not beaten any of the good teams they've faced off this year. With the exception of the Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers in Week 1, San Francisco has lost to all the winning teams they've played this year.
The Seattle Seahawks, Indianapolis Colts, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints all escaped the clutches of the 49ers defense and went on to outscore their offense. These are legitimate football teams, whereas Houston and Jacksonville are not this year.
So, while this team looked sharp at times, it is becoming harder to gauge how good the 49ers truly are and how much of a chance they have come playoff time, seeing as how this 2013 team has no statement wins over worthy opponents.
The 49ers are 2-4 against teams that are .500 or better and 4-0 against teams with losing records.— ESPN Monday Night (@ESPNMondayNight) November 25, 2013